Alongside the cast and crew of Star Trek: Picard, Sir Patrick Stewart opens up about returning to the lead role after 18 years and explains why this series marks a new direction for the storied franchise.
As far as Sir Patrick Stewart was concerned, the Star Trek chapter of his heralded career was over. From his first appearance as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship USS Enterprise, in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, he appeared in all seven seasons of the sci-fi series, plus one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and four feature films, culminating in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.
It took some persuading, but thanks to executive producers Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsman and supervising producer Kirsten Beyer, he has now returned to the role after an 18 year hiatus for Star Trek: Picard, the first series in the franchise to be named after a character rather than a starship or station.
“I’m on record as having said, ‘Nope, no more Star Trek. I said goodbye to that, I’m proud of everything we did but I’m done with it.’ Then Alex, Akiva, Michael and Kirsten began talking to me, and they talked and talked about Star Trek in a way I had never imagined before,” Stewart recalls.
“As I reflected and talked to my own team about this, at the end, I realised it was something I had to do – and what a smart decision that was! We wrapped filming our first season at the end of September and I was as happy with what we’d done with that as anything in my career.”
Set at the end of the 24th century, 14 years after Picard’s retirement from Starfleet, Star Trek: Picard opens with the lead character enjoying a quiet life with his dog, Number One, on his French vineyard, Chateau Picard. But when he is sought out by a mysterious young woman, Dahj (Isa Briones), in need of his help, he soon realises she may have personal connections to his own past.
“I feel I have been preparing to shoot Star Trek: Picard for over 30 years,” Stewart jokes, speaking on stage at the London premiere of the series. “There was a quality about him, a feeling I had about him from the very beginning, which was unlike any acting experience I had had before. When these people came to me and pitched an idea, I was all ready with my speech of refusal. Indeed, I insisted through my representative that I would meet them face to face and tell them why I was going to say no.
“I did my best, and then I do remember Alex saying, ‘Can we just talk to you a little about our idea?’ And he talked and talked. They all got my attention. When the meeting was over, I asked my agent to ask them if they could put on paper the things they said to me because I’d like to study them more closely. The last thing I felt I wanted or needed was to return to Star Trek.
“Two days later, 35 pages showed up. I read them and I was hooked, because what they were writing about was an image of the future of Jean-Luc and the world of Star Trek, which I have never envisioned before and thought could not be possible under the overriding rule of what Star Trek is and what it isn’t. These guys were breaking those rules again and again. That’s the kind of stuff that interests me and, with increasing excitement, I signed on.”
The fact that Star Trek: Picard would provide the next chapter of Jean-Luc’s life was what appealed so much to the actor.
“The world has changed since we finished The Next Generation,” he continues. “I was intrigued by that and the challenge it presents Jean-Luc when he was no longer an authority figure. Doing this again became irresistible because there were so many transformations in the character, his behaviour and what he believed in.”
From the first episode, it’s easy to see why Stewart was drawn to his character’s new adventure, opening with Jean-Luc taking long strolls through the vineyards and haunted in his dreams by the mistakes of his past. A television interview forces him to face the reasons for his retirement head-on, while the arrival of Dahj causes him to shake off the dusty shackles of life after Spacefleet and throw himself into a new mission.
Kurtzman, who has been involved in rebooting the Star Trek franchise with two movies and another series, Star Trek: Discovery, says Stewart threw down the gauntlet to the producers and challenged them to do something that hadn’t been done before.
“I didn’t want to do just season eight of The Next Generation,” the exec producer says. “This is the next chapter of this man’s life. He’s living with regret and loss in a way that is profound. The idea he has this opportunity, in a very unexpected way, to right wrongs he feels he was a part of, it’s a second chance to make amends.
“It’s a beautiful story. You almost never get to tell that story. Jean-Luc is 92 years old in Starfleet years. How many shows allow you to tell the story from the point of view of someone who’s looking back on their life and giving them one last chance at hope? That’s really what we wanted to say.”
Goldsman, who has been involved in Star Trek: Discovery and the Short Trek companion series, agrees that the creative team were keen to respect the period of time that had passed since Jean-Luc was last seen on screen.
“We didn’t want to pick up right on the heels of The Next Generation, we wanted to acknowledge that for both Sir Patrick and the character, 20 years had passed,” he says. “The plans we make rarely line up with the outcome, so as much as Jean-Luc might have left Star Trek: Nemesis thinking he was going one way, life took a different set of choices. We felt that to restart him at his ancestral home gave us some grounding and a way to celebrate him for folks who knew him but also introduce him to those who didn’t.”
Stewart wasn’t the only one who didn’t think the series would materialise from those early conversations. “It was completely unexpected and nothing that even in my wildest fan boy dreams have I ever had the hutzpah to imagine might come to pass,” admits showrunner Chabon, who says he was “lured in” by Goldsman and joined the team when it was already in the early stages of trying to evolve the next Star Trek series following Discovery.
“There were so many dozens of times in the course of making this show that I said to myself or Akiva, Alex or Kirsten, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this’. I still can’t, but it’s true.
“We’re fans. We are steeped in Star Trek and we put everything we love most about the show, every iteration of the show all the way back to the original series, into our work on Picard. We also want people who don’t know the show at all, people who don’t like Star Trek or never watch Star Trek, so we’ve tried to make the show work for those people as well.”
Beyond Stewart, the cast brings together a blend of familiar faces and new arrivals. Returnees include Jeri Ryan, who reprises her Star Trek: Voyager role as Seven of Nine. Jonathan Del Arco is The Next Generation’s Hugh and Brent Spiner appears as android Data.
Among the newcomers are Michelle Hurd as Raffi Musiker, who shares a “complicated history” with Jean-Luc and Starfleet, while Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora play Romulans Narek and Elnor. Alison Pill is synthetics expert Dr Agnes Jurati.
Similarly to Stewart, Ryan says she thought she had said goodbye to her character 20 years ago, and initially didn’t think talk of a return would lead anywhere. “When I was approached about it two years ago, I thought it was a joke. I laughed – I thought it was really funny – and they said, ‘No, we’re serious,’” the actor recalls.
“They pitched the general direction the character was going to go in, which was surprisingly intriguing to me because I thought I was done. Then I thought nothing was going to come of it. People pitch ideas in Hollywood all the time and nothing ever happens.
“Then, cut to a year later, and I’m backstage at the Creative Arts Emmys with Alex getting ready to go on stage and he turns around and says, ‘We’re talking a lot about Seven of Nine in the writers room.’ I was like, ‘Oh, so it’s real? OK.’ It never occurred to me it would actually happen. I’m so thrilled and grateful that it did.”
In contrast, Treadaway was given a speedy introduction to the world of Star Trek. “I remember a phone call early on, lying on my back looking at the stars in Devon while Alex was talking me through what Star Trek was and what the world and this version was,” he remembers.
“I was really coming at it from a very unknowing place and I decided to take that and use it to my advantage rather than anything else. I was fresh-eyed and it just blew me away. I was aware of the heritage and what this world has meant to so many people for so long. It’s an incredible thing.”
Airing on CBS All Access in the US, Bell Media and Crave in Canada and in more than 200 countries worldwide on Amazon Prime Video, Star Trek: Picard is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Secret Hideout and Roddenberry Entertainment. Distribution is handled by CBS Studios International.
The weekly roll-out of episodes – the series debuted last week – means fans won’t be able to binge the entire season straightaway. But with a second season of Picard already commissioned, the good news is they won’t have to wait another 18 years to see Jean-Luc back on screen.
tagged in: Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman, Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access, CBS Studios International, CBS Television Studios, Harry Treadaway, Jeri Ryan, Michael Chabon, Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: Picard